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Skate Skiing’s Return

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Skate Skiing’s Return

January 11, 2017 - 2:20 PM

Trails are groomed in town for the first time in years

Skate skiing the lighted trail through Russian Jack Springs Park. Photo by Zack Fields

For the first time in three years, it is possible to skate ski through Anchorage. Your endurance and patience–no ice, nor asphalt, nor rain–are the only limitation.

Just a few years ago, this was normal. Winter equaled snow. The multi-use trails that crisscross our fair city, many of them lit for night skiing, provided for exercise so joyous that it seemed chimerical. And, for two years, skate skiing across town was a fantasy, as ice and rain rendered Anchorage’s incredible trail network usable only for studded bike tires, studded shoes, creating a surface that challenged even the grip of the world’s best crampons: dog’s toenails.

Given the bizarre and erratic weather around the world–an Arctic Ocean whose ice melted back in November, temperatures thirty degrees above average over the Arctic landmass–it would be crazy to expect pre-global warming winters to return to Anchorage. That’s all the more reason to get out now and skate ski like it’s 2016.

The remarkable thing about Anchorage’s multi-use trail network is that almost every neighborhood is within walking distance of a trailhead. Downtown dwellers can walk down to the Coastal Trail, South Addition, Valley of the Moon, North Star, Fairview, Rogers Park and Airport Heights residents are minutes from Chester Creek Trail. Many East Anchorage residents are a short distance from Russian Jack, APU, or Far North Bicentennial Park’s trails. Lower Hillside residents have their choice of Campbell Tract or the Hillside lighted trails, and Campbell Creek Trail bisects Midtown. West Anchorage, of course, is a fine place to live primarily because of its proximity to Kincaid Park, with its myriad groomed ski loops.

Many Anchoragites hop in their car and drive to a trailhead, then ski loops at Hillside or Kincaid. Those are fine trails, though Hillside is a little hilly for beginners to enjoy. If you haven’t skate skied much before, or are just remembering the sensation of winter, hop on a multi-use trail near your house. You’ll be surprised how quickly you glide from one end of Anchorage to the other. You can skate from Westchester Lagoon past the university complex in a half hour, or make it from Lynn Ary Park to Kincaid in little more time than that. If, like many people, you live near but rarely visit Russian Jack Springs, now is the time to go. The place is laced with trails–broad loops around fields, a long, lighted multi-use trail running north from APU.

The mundane Chester Creek Trail becomes a joy to traverse on skate skis, particularly on the north side of the university complex. Slight downhill grades create the sensation of flying, particularly because passing through the slits of light filtered through spruces make you feel like you’re leaping across frames in a film that’s racing forward ever faster. Chester Creek is part of the annual Tour of Anchorage route and you can check it out without being an extreme athlete. Just follow the groomed trail all the way around APU, then cross the pedestrian bridge over Tudor near ANTHC. Near the new Martin Luther King Boulevard, which the trail passes under, is a three-way split. This is where Campbell Creek Trail begins and Chester Creek ends. For more interesting terrain, head into the darkness on the still wide and still groomed Rondy Trail, which heads up into Far North Bicentennial Park toward Campbell Air Strip.

There’s no need to speculate about trail conditions. Skiers and fat bikers update snowio.com daily, and sometimes hourly, with trail conditions from around town. It also has useful trail reports for trails at Government Peak, Independence Mine and other destinations near town. As I write this article, most of the major trails in town are groomed and the slight inconvenience is that there’s no snow yet in Chester Creek trail under Seward Highway. Almost all the other bridges and tunnels have nice snow paths for skiers.

As climate change has decimated our winter, hundreds if not thousands of Alaskans have turned to fat bikes for winter exercise, myself included. Fortunately, fat bikes don’t create ruts or divots in the multi-use trails. You can fat bike to work during the day and skate ski at night on the same trail, enjoying both activities.

It seems unlikely now that we’ll go a whole winter without one or more rains and the ice sheet that they leave behind. Now is the time to skate, while there is snow. Ignore those brief uphills. On the long, gentle downhill grades, as hoarfrost sparkles under moonlight, distant lights flicker through the trees, you see Anchorage–our forests, our watersheds, our neighborhoods–in a way that is only possible with the light touch and the glide of skate skis.